In the young season, it’s been no secret that the No. 4 Michigan men’s basketball team has struggled to contain size. It cost the Wolverines a win against Seton Hall on Tuesday and allowed Buffalo to nearly pull off a comeback win during last week’s season-opener.
So for Michigan to beat an Arizona team that boasts three rotation players standing at 6-foot-11 or taller and the tallest team in the country by average height — including two of its three leading scorers — the Wolverines would have to win the battle down low in order to leave Las Vegas with two wins.
But Michigan (3-2 overall) once again struggled inside, leading to a disjointed offense and 54 points in the paint allowed in an 80-62 loss to the Wildcats (5-0).
“They have a really good inside presence,” fifth-year guard Eli Brooks said. “They have a lob threat and the second big is very active.”
Early on, the game moved at a fast pace, proving to be a strength for the Wolverines. While Michigan struggled to contain Arizona’s transition offense at times, it kept up on the offensive end and led by four eight minutes into the game.
But from there, the game slowed down, and so did the Wolverines. Their offense lacked flow, an issue compounded by graduate transfer guard DeVante’ Jones picking up his second foul with over eight minutes left in the half. And as the pace slowed, the interior struggles commenced.
Arizona scored 26 points in the paint in the first half compared to Michigan’s 16, while sophomore center Hunter Dickinson was held to just four on 2-for-6 shooting. The Wildcats made sure to pressure Dickinson whenever he touched the ball, often leading to turnovers or contested shots. This included a possession in which Brooks attempted to inbound the ball to Dickinson, but he was immediately swarmed by three defenders, forcing a turnover.
“(Arizona) really did a really good job of getting anything they wanted when they wanted to,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “That was the only game that we played thus far that we’ve allowed teams to beat us in the paint for 54 points, come off ball screens and get lobs over top.”
Not only did the Wolverines struggle to get the ball to Dickinson, but they continually shot themselves in the foot with turnovers. Michigan committed nine turnovers in the final 12 minutes in the half, many of which were unforced.
At one point, sophomore forward Terrance Williams II and freshman forward Moussa Diabate seemingly miscommunicated, leading to Diabate throwing the ball out of bounds. Soon after, senior forward Brandon Johns Jr. couldn’t catch a bounce pass. Later, the typically-reliable Brooks mishandled a handoff from Dickinson, and as a result, Arizona took an eight-point lead into halftime.
The second half was no different. While Dickinson quickly got on the board with two free throws, the Wildcats dominated the paint over the next few possessions. Arizona center Christian Koloko and forward Azuolas Tubelis both converted on the offensive end, while Dickinson committed a turnover and Koloko blocked a Johns shot, leading to two fastbreak layups. By the under-12 timeout, Arizona had already scored 14 points in the paint in the second half, its lead up to 17.
“Overall we didn’t do a really good job of going at their length,” Howard said. “I think at times we forced the issue by driving to try to finish over top of their length instead of, like we talked about as a team, drive and kick is gonna be open.”
While the Wolverines took better care of the ball in the second half, they were thoroughly outplayed in all phases of the game. Koloko and Tubelis continued to dominate down low, putting the game firmly in the hands of the Wildcats. As long as Arizona had its way in the paint, Michigan had no chance to close the gap. Highlighted by 22 points from Koloko, the Wildcats cruised to a win.
And after another loss to an unranked opponent, the Wolverines were left with more questions about their offensive identity outside of Dickinson and their ability to battle down low.